Some days ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew over flood-hit areas of his home state Gujarat – a privilege that has not yet been extended to many other Indian states facing the wrath of monsoons this year.
While it would be wrong to conclude that the Prime Minister doesn't care about other states, it would not be wrong also to argue that Gujarat in many ways is the primary concern of Modi, a state that he guards zealously like his last bastion.
The ongoing drama in Gujarat and turmoil in the Congress, thus, should be seen in the context of the state's importance in Modi's – and by extension BJP president Amit Shah's – scheme of things. The state should be seen as a battleground Modi and Shah would try to dominate with every weapon in their arsenal – saam, daam, dand, bhed.
So, it has come to pass that the Congress is in complete disarray just a few months before the Gujarat Assembly elections. Its most prominent face, Shankersinh Vaghela, arguably the only leader who could have given Modi-Shah a tough time, has quit, leading a small bunch of turncoats like the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Its legislators have been herded in a Karnataka resort, fearing more predatory raids by the BJP. And, its plans of sending senior party leader Ahmed Patel to the Rajya Sabha via Gujarat are on knife's edge, with more and more MLAs threatening to cross-vote for the BJP.
Patel's plight is a perfect metaphor for the mess within the Congress. That the political advisor to the Congress president, the man who ran the Congress from behind the curtain for several years, is uncertain of victory in his home state despite having the numbers till a few days ago is a tragicomic reminder of the decline of the party and its utter incompetence to break the freefall.
Congress spokesperson and Gujarat legislator Bharat Singh Solanki has claimed that the BJP came up with an irresistible offer of cash and ticket for the Assembly polls. Nobody can prove the Congress allegation of its MLAs being offered Rs 15 crore to switch loyalties in Gujarat as has been appearing in the media, both print and visual. Whether it is fear, greed, inducement or plain disenchantment with the party, the compulsion behind their treachery, only the Congress turncoats can say.
But, the BJP's compulsions in destabilising the Congress are apparent. One, the Opposition is running in all directions at the moment since the twin setbacks in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, one an electoral loss, the other a bloodless coup by its own poster boy. The BJP wants to ensure that the Opposition gets absolutely no opportunity to regroup and mount a challenge in Gujarat.
Two, the political situation in Gujarat is still unpredictable. The Patidar unrest two years ago, Dalit anger after violence in Una, the rise of new leaders like Hardik Patel and Jignesh Mewani and the confusion among traders because of demonetisation and GST is yet to play out electorally, though there is every possibility that such a thing could hap[pen well before the run-up to the elections and in that case cause some trouble for the BJP.
In spite of the series of defeats over the past two decades, according to political observers, the Congress has been increasing its vote share since 2012 with the gap between it and the BJP being just 9 per cent today. Obviously, even a small swing of votes away from the BJP could prove costly in the next election.
The BJP is making every effort to ensure the Congress doesn't benefit from the dynamic political environment in the state.
Ahmed Patel, Political Secretary to Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and the party's top strategist says Shah has a personal grudge against me which is why they are going all out using the most underhand means that I have ever seen in my 40 years of politics to ensure that I lose. Money power, muscle power, you name it - they have deployed it.
He was referring to the collection of MLAs or state law-makers who migrated last week from the Congress to the BJP ahead of the Rajya Sabha election on August 8. Gujarat has three seats in the race - Shah and union minister Smriti Irani will easily win two; Patel is running for the third. Six Congress legislators have exited the party; to prevent a larger contagion, the Congress has flown nearly 40 others to a resort in Bengaluru where they will remain till the party deems it's safe for them to return to Gujarat to vote in the election.
Like other Congress leaders, Patel, 67, and in search of a fifth term of the Upper House, says that the BJP is hitting below the belt, using threats or the promise of big rewards to swing defections in its favour.
If Patel is unable to win his election, the BJP will hit multiple targets - there's the obvious benefit of embarrassing its rival in a top leader of the Congress losing what should have been an easy contest from his home state; the party's morale, will sink further; and more MLAs may therefore move over to the BJP ahead of the state elections for Gujarat that are due by December.
The BJP is headed for another victory in the state that it has governed uninterrupted for nearly 22 years. But punishing the Congress further while expanding its own hold - Shah has called Mission 150 to urge the BJP to improve on its current standing of 121 seats - will be a big step forward in his plans for a "Congress-Mukt Bharat" (a Congress-Free India).
Just last week, the BJP succeeded in removing the Congress in Bihar, where the party was a member of Nitish Kumar's government. Shah reportedly harbours resentment against Patel because he blames the previous Congress-led national government for his imprisonment in 2010 on charges of murder based on the Gujarat police killing a petty criminal allegedly on his orders while he was Gujarat Home Minister. Shah's party said at the time that the CBI's charges were influenced by the Congress-led government.
In the BJP chief's plan to squeeze further the Congress in Gujarat, he has found a willing accomplice in Shankersinh Vaghela. In 1996, the 77-year-old left the BJP to join the Congress. This year, he was denied his request to be named the Congress' Chief Ministerial candidate. Enraged,Vaghela demonstrated his strength by ensuring 11 Congress MLAs voted against the party in the election for President of India last month. Now, he is luring MLAs away from the Congress and towards the waiting BJP. Patel said he had offered that Vaghela could have his Rajya Sabha seat, but his party turned down the proposal. He also insists that if a defeat follows, it should not be seen as mismanagement by or a reflection of the leadership of Mrs Gandhi and her son, Rahul.
The Congress, of course, is to be blamed for its current plight and chaos among legislators. Rahul Gandhi, like always, has shown a complete lack of ability to provide leadership. Time and again – in Assam, Goa, Arunachal Pradesh and Bihar – he has failed to take timely decisions and deal with dissent, exposing himself as helpless, clueless and tactless. His inability to deal with Vaghela's ambition, most likely, has cost the Congress the 2018 Gujarat election and the chance to regroup before 2019.
But, how does one expect a party to douse the fires ravaging it when its chief political strategist is running around with his tail on fire